Courts across Kansas to go dark on furlough Fridays

A historic event is set to take place Friday in district courts across Kansas.

Because of state budget cuts, all nonjudicial employees will be required to take an involuntary unpaid furlough this Friday and three others — April 16 and 23 and May 7.

"It's the first time Kansas courts have been shut down," Sedgwick County District Court Chief Judge James Fleetwood said Tuesday.

That means if you wait until Friday to pick up a marriage license for Saturday's wedding, you're out of luck.

And court clerks are going to have some horrendous Mondays trying to catch up.

The Kansas Supreme Court issued the furlough order last month.

In Sedgwick County, about 250 employees will be affected. The district's 28 judges will work those four Fridays, but they'll handle only such criminal and safety matters as first appearances, protection-from-abuse orders and orders that affect children in need of care.

"But the judge will have no support staff in getting that done," Fleetwood said.

No court service officers, including probation officers. Not even any court reporters to take down every word.

If anything needs to be put on the record, it will be done on a digital recorder, said Sedgwick County court administrator Ellen House.

Then, in addition to everything else, those recordings will have to be transcribed the following Monday.

"They will be very, very busy Mondays," House said.

Sedgwick County has been given permission to have five clerks work on the furlough Fridays in "critical" areas. Each will have to take a furlough day earlier in the week, House said.

County services at the courthouse, such as the district attorney's office, register of deeds and the license tag office, will be open. Security personnel also will work.

Otherwise, there will be a lot of dark offices and empty hallways.

It could have been for a longer period.

Facing an $8 million shortfall for the 2010 fiscal year, the state's courts were initially scheduled to have 26 days of furloughs. But the Legislature injected $5 million for the courts, reducing the furlough days to four Fridays.

With 98 percent of the judicial budget going to salaries, Fleetwood said reducing that cost was the only way to stay within the budget.

"We don't have improvement projects we can put off until next year," he said.

The effect will be felt by court employees and the public.

"We have employees working two jobs now just trying to make ends meet," Fleetwood said.

State positions often don't pay as much as the private sector, but the trade-off benefit has been reliable employment.

"Now they're wondering how reliable the job is," Fleetwood said.

Services will take a hit. As a result of a hiring freeze, Sedgwick County's state courts were already down 26 employees.

Some court proceedings normally held on Fridays will be shifted to earlier in the week. But there's no getting around other problems created by the furloughs.

"We've been working to prepare for this," House said. "We've had to cut some customer services. In general, it may take a little longer to get an answer or get copies."

And then there are the marriage licenses.

"Seriously, a lot of people come in at the last minute when they have a wedding on Saturdays," House said.

Keeping up with the work flow for a district court that sees about 300 cases filed daily will be a stress point.

One of the provisions in the supreme court's order is that court clerks' offices may shorten the hours they are open to the public to allow the staff uninterrupted time to process backlogs of work created by the furloughs.

Sedgwick County already had shortened its hours, from 5 p.m. to 4 p.m., about two years ago.

"At this point, we're not planning to (shorten the hours more)," House said. "This is the first time we've done this (furlough), so we're going to wait and see exactly how long it takes to catch up.

"We know it's going to be rough, but we're here to serve the public. We'll wait and re-evaluate it after this first week."

Some Sedgwick County commissioners expressed concern Tuesday that the court closings would add to jail overcrowding.

But Fleetwood said he doesn't expect that to be the case.

"The judges can schedule sentencing around the furloughs," he said. "I don't see the one-day closing having a significant effect on jail population.

"The biggest effect is just getting all the office work done on Mondays (left over) from Fridays. But the judges are aware of the issue and are focused on moving people out of jail as quickly as they can."